First, Second and Third Degree Burns of Climate Change: New IPCC Report Confirms Degrees Matter

Climate change has set our planet on fire, millions are already feeling the impacts, and the IPCC just showed that things can get much worse - if we don't act now.

First Degree burns are still burns.

They hurt. But we can recover.

That’s where we are today with global warming: about 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels.

More than a century of unsustainable development has burned us to the point where monster storms are wreaking havoc for communities in both the Atlantic and Pacific, deadly heat waves and forest fires are raging in the north, and entire villages are fleeing towards higher lands.

According to the just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this is only the beginning: the IPCC has already found evidence of farmers migrating as temperatures increase, which exacerbates inequality as those least able to cope are increasingly forced to uproot their lives.

The difference between today’s 1 degree of warming and the 1.5 degrees we are rapidly racing toward is 100 million more lives thrown into poverty around the globe. This is what a first degree burn looks like, and already we are feeling the pain.

Second degree burns aren’t just worse—they are exponentially more painful. A second degree burn on the human body destroys the first layer of skin, damaging parts of our body that are not designed to be exposed.

Like our bodies, the climate feels a big difference between first and second degree burns and the IPCC report makes clear that the difference between a 1.5 degree increase and a two degree increase is like the dramatic difference between a first and second degree burn, especially for the poor.

If temperatures go up to 2 degrees, that makes 62-467 million people more vulnerable to climate impacts and poverty.

Ice regularly disappears in the North Pole as rising seas swallow up the homes of at least ten million more along the coasts.

Raijeli Nicole, Regional Director for Oxfam in the Pacific

A second degree burn leaves scars--permanent damage.

Coastal communities across the globe are wiped off the map.

Further, the IPCC report reaffirms the painful reality that vulnerable communities—including indigenous, agricultural, and coastal communities—will suffer the most as food and water becomes less available, health risks increase, and their lives and livelihoods are jeopardized. Not only is this terribly unjust, it is also a recipe for insecurity and instability.

Third degree burns mean hospital-level attention.

They eat through all protective layers of skin and go down to the bone and alter the tissue; sometimes they require amputation. Right now, commitments made by countries under the Paris Agreement puts us on a roughly three degree trajectory—and that assumes that all countries (even the United States) will fully meet their existing national commitments.

We cannot afford to put our collective future in jeopardy, and the IPCC report is clear that we do not and should not have to accept this.

Particularly for the futures of the poor who have done the least to cause this problem, this new IPCC report makes clear a 1.5 degree target is absolutely necessary, and the faster we act, the fewer tradeoffs we will have to grapple with in the years to come.

Apollos Nwafor, PanAfrica Director, Oxfam International

There's still some time

The good news is that we still have options.

However, the IPCC’s analysis makes clear that not all pathways are created equal: there are ways to get to 1.5 degrees that are just and can help lift people out of poverty, and there are ways that force impossible tradeoffs like choosing between farming land to grow food and farming land to capture carbon.

The faster we act, the easier it will be on everyone, particularly those staring climate disasters in the face. If we can turn around energy pathways in the next ten years, we can help shift countries’ energy futures from 19th century coal technologies to 21st century renewables.

The IPCC says that phasing out coal by 2020 is not only possible but necessary, as is depending less on oil and gas. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels also gives the added bonus of reducing soot, methane, and other pollution that is not only exacerbating climate change but also compromising human health.

On the land front, stopping the expansion of the industrial agriculture frontier can curb deforestation emissions while protecting small farmers and biodiversity alike. Sustainable solutions are out there, and we need to embrace them at an unprecedented rate.

We owe it to each other

First, second, and third degree planetary burns: it’s not linear, it’s the difference between a blister that can heal or maybe having to amputate.

We owe it to the hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods at stake due to this difference in degrees to do all we can to act urgently, swiftly, morally, and mindfully.

We must act now, and we must also be sensitive to the impacts already baked into the system and prioritize finance to enable those least responsible for the problem to cope with those impacts that simply cannot be avoided.

Toward a sustainable future

Communities in the global south are leading the calls for a different kind of development that does not follow the inequitable and unsustainable pathways that got us into this mess. It’s time for us to stand with them and embrace the challenge of a healthy, sustainable future.

Fiji and the Marshall Islands have already announced plans to step up their national contributions under the Paris Agreement.

It’s time for everyone—especially the wealthy emitters that got us into this mess—to step up action and help put out the emissions fire burning the planet so that we can start to not only stop the burn but start to heal.

This entry posted on 12 October 2018, by Kristen Hite, Climate Change Policy Lead at Oxfam.

Photo: Farmers in Ethiopia, by Kieran Doherty/Oxfam, February 2018.
Recurrent drought in Ethiopia has led to a lack of water and therefore a strain on the diminishing natural resources needed to sustain the population. Oxfam's work there includes:

  • Providing households with crops that are more resistant to droughts and pests and train them to get the best yields possible.
  • Constructing irrigation schemes to support households in the production of crops and livestock fodder.
  • Providing pastoralists with tools, seeds and training to grow animal feed to enable families to grow enough food to eat. Pastoralists will also be supported to sell and make a profit from their produce so they have income to see them through periods of shortage.
Share this page: